PULLMAN – Coming to a close is Paul Wulff’s third spring as head football coach at Washington State, or the second anniversary of when – with garbage-can lids a-crashing about his head like cymbals in a Three Stooges symphony – he was struck by the enormity of his task.
The stale joke is that in April, all college football teams are still undefeated atop the Great Hope Conference standings. This is not quite true at Wazzu.
No, the Cougars have not lost yet in 2010 and, yes, there is hope. But the cataclysmic results of Wulff’s first teams are the equivalent of a two-strike count – either alumni disgust or indifference. And come this fall, every first down or three-and-out, every youthful miscue or hint of brilliance will be a referendum on his worthiness – in other words, the same as the last two seasons.
He would love for that not to be so. But his message – both to those still clinging to the entertainment possibilities of Cougars football and those who’ve moved on – remains the same:
There was no other way.
“I wish we could go from A to Z,” he said. “It doesn’t work that way.”
Just this week, with today’s final spring scrimmage looming, Wulff made a reluctant call to cancel a practice. For a day, the number of Cougs sick, hurt or academically engaged was too great to ensure a decent effort, and so he decided not to risk even the smidgen of the momentum the Cougars have generated this spring.
Football and fragile don’t often go in the same sentence, but they do at WSU.
Even to those in harmony with Wulff’s mantra of patience, hiccups like this one that have them asking, “How much?” It’s Year 3. Are there still not enough bodies in place to guarantee competition within the team, never mind on fall Saturdays?
Yes. No. Maybe.
“This is the first time after these two seasons,” said Wulff, “that we feel we’re at least out of the hole, the first time that we’ve been able to really grow. To the coaches and players, it’s pretty obvious that we’re better. We’re operating at a lot higher clip and we’re more physical.”
But the average halftime deficit was three touchdowns last fall, when the Cougars finished 1-11. So this is, as usual, relative. Wulff is downright exuberant about the freshmen class wrapping up its first year and the freshmen to come, but then he remembers that maybe 10 seniors will make the two-deep. His inflection reminds you of a teenager in driver’s ed trying to master the clutch.
Of course, there are scads of sobering numbers that can be cited. Here’s one: Of the players who reported for Wulff’s first spring in 2008, all of 27 remain. Old Man Attrition and his sidekicks Ineligible and Arraigned have been slowed somewhat, but Wazzu still may not have 80 players on scholarship come fall.
But it’s still spring, and this time around the Cougars operated with an offensive line that “had eight or nine guys that athletically belong in the Pac-10,” Wulff said. Junior college imports Wade Jacobson and David Gonzalez added not just depth, but some nastiness. Steve Morton, whose coaching career has come full circle from when he started at Wazzu 35 years ago, may be the most significant recruit.
“This is the key position on offense, period,” said Wulff. “You can design every route, every running play and it all looks like crap if there’s no time and space. It isn’t Xs and Os. It’s been our inability to function. We will be a much improved football team in that regard.”
And then he’s off – talking about the maturity of quarterback Jeff Tuel thrown into an ongoing disaster last year, calling Daniel Simmons one of the finest young corners in the league, raving about yet-to-be seen freshman talents like linebacker Sekope Kaufusi.
So how about those of us who look at the likely lineup and see no game-changers? Are we wrong?
“No,” Wulff said. “Clearly we don’t have enough explosive playmakers on offense – it’s very evident. But I think now is the time if you’re a Cougar fan to start watching because you’re going to see some young ones start to emerge. There are game-changers coming. Some are in our program and will take a step this year. Some are 18-year-olds who will show up on campus and will play this fall and you’ll say, ‘Wow, he’s a freshman?’ ”
Coug fans could use a few “wow” moments – and not the kind uttered in resignation.